Illegal gender detector doing brisk business in Vietnam

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A "quick stick" now widely sold in Vietnam is advertised as being able to tell an embryo's gender by testing the mother's urine. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

The Vietnamese government has banned hospitals from revealing the sex of fetuses to prevent increasing female feticide, but a new gender test stick is being illegally and freely sold outside hospitals in major cities .

Online advertisements say the sticks are brought back from the US and France as personal luggage as they are not allowed in Vietnam. They claim the sticks can tell the gender of the fetus as early as the sixth week with at least 90 percent accuracy.

The sticks are being sold online and on the streets for around VND1 million (US$48) each, but there are offers of close to 50 percent discounts for orders of 30 or more.

Vendors say the stick works simply. The mother-to-be needs to put a few drops of her urine in the morning on the stick. In about five minutes, it changes color; it turns blue if the fetus is a boy and pink if it is a girl.

Linh, a vendor in front of Tu Du Hospital, the leading obstetrics facility in Ho Chi Minh City, said, "You don't need a discreet exam or wait until delivery to know if your baby is a boy or girl.

"Those who want a boy can also know the gender early to decide to keep or abort the baby."

Hopefully, the stick will not trigger a spate of abortions, doctors say, noting that several women have been talking about how inaccurate it is. They also suspect that the stick is some dubious product smuggled in from China instead of Western countries as claimed.

Nguyen Thi Ha in HCMC said she used the stick one week before birth and its window turned pink, but now she has a son.

Intelligender and Gendermaker are two brands of sticks available on the market, and it appears that they give out different results.

Nguyen Hanh, another Ho Chi Minh City resident, said he and his wife have a daughter and they want a son.

They tested their baby's gender recently when the embryo was seven weeks old, and one stick said it would be a boy. Three days later, another stick said it was a girl.

Doctors say the stick cannot be very reliable as the mother's urine cannot indicate the baby's gender accurately.

Dr. Le Thi Thu Ha of Tu Du Hospital said Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis is the test that can help know the baby's gender at the earliest.

It is performed on couples with some diseases they suspect they can pass on to the children, and help them choose the baby's gender to reduce the risks. For instance, some diseases are only passed down by the mother to her son.

Parents need to be qualified for the test, which is done only on babies conceived by IVF.

With babies conceived normally, doctors say chorionic villus sampling, or tests on the placental tissues, can also tell the gender at ten or 12 weeks, but hospitals in Vietnam are only allowed to conduct the tests on mothers adjudged as being at risk of delivering babies with congenital diseases.

The two methods, besides ultrasound scans, are the official methods for prenatal sex discernment, although many countries  limit their use merely for gender selection.

There are no official documents featuring the use of the quick stick, or about its use being approved.

The quick stick has only made news in Vietnam this year.

Health inspectors from HCMC have said they are going to track down those responsible for the sale of the sticks and mete out due punishment.

Vietnam does not outlaw abortions, but sex-selective abortions are illegal. Experts have warned that the traditional preference for sons in a patriarchal society has already skewed the gender ratio at birth, and is likely to create a serious gender imbalance in the country. 

The country's skewed sex ratio at birth has been rising steadily over the past few years, from the average 106 males per 100 females compared with a biologically standard figure of 105 in 2006, to 112.3 at present, according to the General Office for Population Family Planning

Men would have to delay their marriage or not be. able to find a wife at all, and incidents of rape, human trafficking and other abuses can increase, they have warned.

Penalties for the carrying out of any procedure to determine a fetus's gender before delivery have been tripled starting this year from between VND3 and 7 million to VND10-20 million (US$476-952).

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